In The Hague at the CITES Conference:
Julia Roberson [email protected]

In the United States:
Shannon Crownover [email protected]


(December 13, 2006) With most wild caviar banned from international trade, a coalition of conservation groups is pointing consumers to farmed caviars offered by reputable dealers as the best choice this holiday season.

Rampant overfishing and illegal fishing are key factors in the steep decline of wild sturgeon populations, and in January the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) halted trade on most wild caviar to give the species a chance to recover. With the ban in place during the 2006 holiday season, wildlife officials have stepped up efforts to track and stop illegal trade. Consumers should also be on the alert, and choose farmed caviars from trustworthy sources, such as those from sturgeon and paddlefish produced in the United States and Europe.

Last month, Environment Canada officials used a DNA-based method to stop the illegal import of 126 kilograms (277 pounds) of caviar labeled as low-grade kaluga caviar from the Amur River in China. The DNA test revealed the shipment as beluga, osetra and sevruga caviars, which is traditionally harvested from sturgeons found in the Caspian Sea. Environment Canada estimated the retail price to be over $305,000. A U.S. study employing the same methodology in 1998 determined that nearly 20 percent of caviar on the New York City market was either being sold under false labels or from endangered sturgeon.

Caviar Emptor – a campaign of the Pew Institute for Ocean Science, SeaWeb and the Natural Resources Defense Council – urges consumers this holiday season to be wary of buying caviar if not from a reputable retailer and in particular, buying caviar online through “special deals.” Consumers can buy farmed caviar directly from the sturgeon farms themselves as a way to ensure they are obtaining the legal product.

In the United States, imported_wild_caviar_must_be_labeled_to_indicate_its_country_of_origin__the_species__and_whether_it_is_wild___ldquo.css;W”) or farmed (“C” for captive bred). This year Iranian Persian sturgeon caviar is the only legal product coming from the Caspian Sea. Caviar from Russia, Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan harvested in 2006 is illegal and if offered the product, consumers should contact the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Caviar that dates from 2005 likely lacks in freshness. Consumers should also keep in mind that due to the listing of the beluga sturgeon under the Endangered Species Act in September 2005, it illegal to import beluga caviar into the United States.

Only a small amount of legal wild caviar will reach the marketplace this year and much of this caviar comes from sturgeon species that are poorly managed and in danger of extinction. For instance, Iran was allowed an export quota this year for Persian sturgeon caviar. Yet even there, the illegal catch of sturgeon in the southern Caspian Sea this spring reportedly equaled the amount legally harvested, according to Iran’s Deputy Agricultural Minister Shabanali Nezami, quoted in Iran Daily (Nov 2006). Therefore, consumers should consider avoiding wild caviar altogether.

The Caspian Sea is traditionally the source of the world’s black caviar, but overfishing, poaching, habitat destruction, pollution and worldwide demand for unfertilized sturgeon roe, or caviar, has led to drastically reduced sturgeon populations. Of particular concern is the beluga sturgeon, a 200 million-year-old species that scientists call a “living fossil.” Beluga sturgeon populations have declined by 90 percent over the past two decades, and the most recent stock assessments conducted by the Caspian nations show a 45 percent decline in beluga sturgeon in just one year (2004–2005). Given beluga caviar’s retail value of more than $150 per ounce (28 grams), the species is especially vulnerable to poachers.

Rick Moonen, head chef at rm Seafood in Las Vegas, says consumers and chefs can do their part this holiday season: “I stopped serving Caspian caviar in 2000 because I noticed a decline in the quality and I became increasingly concerned about the environmental friendliness of the product. This holiday season, I urge anyone who loves caviar to only choose farmed caviar. It doesn’t make sense to eat the eggs of an endangered species when there are wonderful alternatives available.”

The deadline for the Caspian nations to submit information to CITES for 2007 export quotas was November 30. Caviar Emptor is urging CITES to maintain restrictions on trade until sturgeon populations show they can support sustainable trade, and management plans are in place that address overfishing and poaching in the Caspian Sea. For the most imperiled species, such as the beluga, long-term trade protection and a fishing moratorium may be the only chance to save the species from extinction. CITES is required to publish their decision regarding 2007 export quotas by December 31, 2006.

For interviews with scientists, conservationists, or food industry spokespeople, please contact Julia Roberson, + [email protected] or Joey Brookhart, +1.202.470.2535, [email protected]. For more information, including contact information for sturgeon farms in the US and Europe, see


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